The New York Base Ball Club (a.k.a. Washington BBC, Gotham BBC), Part 2

Base Ball Founders, 2013

Base Ball Founders, 2013

This continues from http://goo.gl/WQEVTR. It was first published in Base Ball Founders: The Clubs, Players and Cities of the Northeast That Established the Game (McFarland 2013).

Admittedly, this has been a serpentine path. Let me now bring in William Rufus Wheaton to help fill in the story. Born in 1814, Wheaton attended New York’s Union Hall Academy, at the corner of Prince and Oliver streets, near Chatham Square and the racket court and handball alley at Allen Street, which he appears to have frequented. He read law with the notable attorney John Leveridge, passed the bar in 1836, was active in the New York 7th Regiment, and in 1841 was admitted to practice in the Court of Chancery and the Supreme Court of New York. His legal training, more than that of any other original Knick mentioned as a “father of baseball,” equipped him to codify the venerable if still anecdotal playing rules.

Wheaton was a solid cricketer as well as a baseballist. He umpired two baseball games played between the New York and Brooklyn clubs on October 21 and 24, 1845, both of which were played eight to the side and reported in the press, with accompanying box scores. He recruited members for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, as Peverelly noted. He was the club’s first vice president. Although paired with the tobacconist William H. Tucker as the entirety of the Knickerbocker Committee on By-Laws, Wheaton appears to have been the one who truly wrote the rules that were formalized on September 23, 1845. Before that, by his own account, he drew up the rules for the Gotham club of the 1830s, which the Knickerbockers adopted with little change aside from repealing the Gotham provision for an out to be recorded by a catch on the fly.

By the spring of 1846, however, barely six months after the founding of the Knickerbocker Club, Wheaton resigned. We do not know the circumstances. On June 5 of that year, the Knickerbockers, not yet one year old, elected their first honorary members, 49-year-old James Lee and 53-year-old Abraham Tucker, both of whom had been Gothams. Wheaton was not accorded such an honor.[26] He left the Knickerbockers and returned to active play at cricket, going on to win a trophy bat for highest score in a match of the New York Cricket Club in October 1848.[27]

On January 28, 1849, a month before Alexander Cartwright’s departure from New York, Wheaton embarked for California in a speculative venture called the New York Mining Company, in which he was one of a hundred gold-besotted souls who purchased and outfitted a ship, the Strafford, for what would be a 213-day journey to San Francisco around Cape Horn. Although he returned east upon occasion thereafter, he made his substantial business and political career in the West.

Wheaton Remembers,:SF Examiner, 1887

Wheaton Remembers: SF Examiner, 1887

On Sunday, November 27, 1887, an “interesting history” appeared on page 14 of the San Francisco Examiner. It was entitled “How Baseball Began—a Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.” This interview with an unnamed “old pioneer,” undoubtedly Wheaton, lay buried in the microfilm archives until 2004, when Randall Brown published extensive excerpts from it in his landmark article, “How Baseball Began,” in SABR’s National Pastime.[28] Here is the entirety of the Examiner piece, with variant spellings and styles intact.

HOW BASEBALL BEGAN
A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It.
PLAYED FOR FUN THEN.
The Game Was the Outgrowth of Three-Cornered Cat, Which Had Become Too Tame.

Baseball to-day is not by any means the game from which it sprang. Old men can recollect the time when the only characteristic American ball sport was three-cornered cat, played with a yarn ball and flat paddles.

The game had an humble beginning. An old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland, related the following interesting history of how it originated to an Examiner reporter:

“In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ’36, and was very fond of physical exercise. In fact we all were in those days, and we sought it wherever it could be found. There were at that time two cricket clubs in New York city, the St. George and the New York, and one in Brooklyn called the ‘Star,’ of which Alexander Campbell, who afterwards became well known as a criminal lawyer in ‘Frisco, was a member. There was a racket club in Allen street with an enclosed court. [A note in the New York Clipper on October 23, 1880 evokes the period: “In olden times Chatham square used to be an open meadow or common, and was the play-ground of the boys of this city. Baseball was the favorite game played on the square, but it was then a simple pastime, with flat sticks or axe-handles for bats, and yarn balls. Occasionally a boy, more lucky than the rest, would bring on the ground a ball made of a sturgeon’s nose, procured from the racket court in Allen street, where it had been driven over the wall by a rash blow.”]

[“]Myself and intimates, young merchants, lawyers and physicians, found cricket to[o] slow and lazy a game. We couldn’t get enough exercise out of it. Only the bowler and the batter had anything to do, and the rest of the players might stand around all the afternoon without getting a chance to stretch their legs. Racket was lively enough, but it was expensive and not in an open field where we could have full swing and plenty of fresh air with a chance to roll on the grass. Three-cornered cat was a boy’s game, and did well enough for slight youngsters, but it was a dangerous game for powerful men, because the ball was thrown to put out a man between bases, and it had to hit the runner to put him out. The ball was made of a hard rubber center, tightly wrapped with yarn, and in the hands of a strong-armed man it was a terrible missile, and sometimes had fatal results when it came in contact with a delicate part of the player’s anatomy.”

THE GOTHAM BASEBALL CLUB.

“We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn’t suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837. Among the members were Dr. John Miller, a popular physician of that day; John Murphy, a well-known hotel-keeper; and James Lee, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. To show the difference between times then and now, it is enough to say that you would as soon expect to find a Bishop or Chief Justice playing ball as the present President of the Chamber of Commerce. Yet in old times everybody was fond of outdoor exercise, and sober merchants and practitioners played ball till their joints got so stiff with age they couldn’t run. It is to the oft-repeated and vigorous open-air exercise of my early manhood that I owe my vigor at the age of 73.wheaton_autograph

“The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and order that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner with it before he reached the base. During the regime of three-cornered cat there were no regular bases, but only such permanent objects as a bedded boulder or an old stump, and often the diamond looked strangely like an irregular polygon. We laid out the ground at Madison square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties was out in the country, far from the city limits. We had no short-stop, and often played with only six or seven men on a side. The scorer kept the game in a book we had made for that purpose, and it was he who decided all disputed points. The modern umpire and his tribulations were unknown to us.”

October 25, 1845: New York vs. Brooklyn; Wheaton, umpire

October 25, 1845: New York vs. Brooklyn; Wheaton, umpire

HOW THEY PLAYED THEN.

“We played for fun and health, and won every time. The pitcher really pitched the ball and underhand throwing was forbidden. Moreover he pitched the ball so the batsman could strike it and give some work to the fielders. The men outside the diamond always placed themselves where they could do the most good and take part in the game. Nowadays the game seems to be played almost entirely by the pitcher and catcher. The pitcher sends his ball purposely in a baffling way, so that the batsman half the time can’t get a strike [meaning “a hit”] or reach a base. After the Gotham club had been in existence a few months it was found necessary to reduce the rules of the new game to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I then formulated is substantially that in use to-day. We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching. The Gothams played a game of ball with the Star Cricket Club of Brooklyn and beat the Englishmen out of sight, of course. That game and the return were the only two matches [i.e., games with other clubs] ever played by the first baseball club. [NOTE: These undoubtedly refer to the contests of October 1845.]

“The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. For a playground we chose the Elysian fields of Hoboken, just across the Hudson river. And those fields were truly Elysian to us in those days. There was a broad, firm, greensward, fringed with fine shady trees, where we could recline during intervals, when waiting for a strike [i.e., a turn at bat], and take a refreshing rest.”

LOTS OF EXERCISE AND FUN.

“We played no exhibition or match games, but often our families would come over and look on with much enjoyment. Then we used to have dinner in the middle of the day, and twice a week we would spend the whole afternoon in ball play. We were all mature men and in business, but we didn’t have too much of it as they do nowadays. There was none of that hurry and worry so characteristic of the present New York. We enjoyed life and didn’t wear out so fast. In the old game when a man struck out[,] those of his side who happened to be on the bases had to come in and lose that chance of making a run. We changed that and made the rule which holds good now. The difference between cricket and baseball illustrates the difference between our lively people and the phlegmatic English. Before the new game was made we all played cricket, and I was so proficient as to win the prize bat and ball with a score of 60 in a match cricket game in New York of 1848, the year before I came to this Coast. But I never liked cricket as well as our game. When I saw the game between the Unions and the Bohemians the other day, I said to myself if some of my old playmates who have been dead forty years could arise and see this game they would declare it was the same old game we used to play in the Elysian Fields, with the exception of the short-stop, the umpire, and such slight variations as the swift underhand throw, the masked catcher and the uniforms of the players. We started out to make a game simply for safe and healthy recreation. Now, it seems, baseball is played for money and has become a regular business, and, doubtless, the hope of beholding a head or limb broken is no small part of the attraction to many onlookers.”

***

The scorebook that Wheaton referenced, along with the Gotham bylaws and playing rules, was not a figment of his aged imagination. Gotham shortstop Charles C. Commerford wrote to Henry Chadwick in 1905 that the first baseball game he saw (he played in the 1840s and 1850s) was played by the New York Club, which “had its grounds on a field bounded by 23rd and 24th streets and 5th and 6th avenues.” Commerford would have seen this game just prior to the fall of 1843, when the New York Ball Club moved its playing grounds to Hoboken. “There was a roadside resort nearby [the Madison Cottage] and a trotting track in the locality. I remember very well that the constitution and by-laws of the old Gotham club, of which I became a member in 1849, stated that the Gotham Club was the successor of the old New York City Club.”[29]

Corporal Thompson's Madison Cottage ca. 1850.

Corporal Thompson’s Madison Cottage ca. 1850.

Commerford added, in a 1911 letter to the New York World: “There was always some little contention between the Knickerbocker Club and the Gotham Club as to the date of organization. The Knickerbockers claimed that they were the first to organize and the Gothams claimed priority, as the New York Club was merged into the Gotham and the former (New York) always insisted that they were the first to organize as such.”[30]

To provide additional gloss on Wheaton’s reminiscence, the games cited above, in which the Gothams “beat the Englishmen out of sight,” were the very same games recorded in the press as pitting New York against Brooklyn in late October 1845. These were the last two of three games played between representatives of the two cities in that month, although we cannot say for certain that the first game was played by the same clubs as the latter two, as no box score survives to identify its contestants.

The Knickerbockers played their first recorded game, an intrasquad contest, in that month as well. On October 6, seven Knicks won by a count of 11–8 over seven of their fellows in three innings. Wheaton was the umpire. William H. Tucker scored three of the losing squad’s eight runs.[31] Like Wheaton and other Knickerbockers, he had been a player with the New York Base Ball Club and maintained his tie to them, indeed playing in the two formal matches of the New Yorks with the Brooklyn Club on October 21 and 24 of 1845, a month after he had helped to form the Knicks. In The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America, author Tom Melville pointed to an even earlier contest between Brooklyn and New York clubs, played on October 10 and reported in the New York Morning News.[32] Research more than a decade later has revealed a somewhat fuller account in the obscure and short-lived newspaper the True Sun:

The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.[33]

True Sun, October 13, 1845

True Sun, October 13, 1845

Many of the early New York baseballists had cut their teeth on cricket, and this was true of the Brooklyn players as well. In the game of October 21, conducted at the Elysian Fields, the eight players of the New York club won handily. They did so again in the game three days later, played at the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club, opposite Sharp’s Hotel, at the corner of Myrtle and Portland avenues near Fort Greene. The scores were, respectively, 24–4 and 37–19. On both these occasions the Brooklyn baseballists included established cricketers John Hines, William Gilmore, John Hardy, William H. Sharp, and Theodore Forman.[34] Their lineup appears to have been identical for the two games, as the Ayers in the October 21 box score and the Meyers of October 24 may be alternative renderings of the same individual. The other seven Brooklynites match up.

For me, the New York Base Ball Club second-anniversary game of November 10, 1845, reported in the New York Herald on the following day, has much in common with the purported “first match game” of June 19, 1846, while the games of October 1845, particularly the latter two, seem to be true match games between wholly differentiated clubs. It could be argued—I certainly would—that the Knickerbockers played no match games until they met the Washington club on June 3, 1851, a game the Knicks won by a count of 21–11. Look at the cast of characters in the Herald’s account of the game.

NYBBC

Several interesting things emerge from this notice of the game. Prominent Knickerbocker names are present—Wheaton, Tucker, Cone, Clair (Clare). So too are Gotham players of prominence—Lalor, Murphy, Johnson, Winslow, Case. The Davis who plays here and in the game of June 19, 1846, is not the Knickerbocker James Whyte Davis, who played opposite him in at least one contest after J.W. Davis’s entrance on the scene in 1850. Venn is Harry Venn, celebrated Bowery icon and proprietor of the Gotham Cottage (a billiard and bowling saloon) at 298 Bowery, longtime clubhouse to the Gotham BBC. Gilmore may well be the Union Star cricketer who played baseball with the Brooklyns on October 21 and 24.

The game of November 10 was played nine to the side, clearly to 21 runs or more in equal innings, a rule that may have been invoked only for formalized contests. The two sides were unnamed. While the New Yorks were celebrating their second year as an organized club, on another field in Hoboken, that very same day, the Knickerbockers were playing an intramural match all their own, eight to the side. So who were these mysterious NYBBC players, so important to baseball’s development yet nearly invisible in the shadow of the Knickerbocker Club? Let me supply a brief record with identifications for a few major figures. An addendum to this essay will portray, in a more perfunctory manner than it deserves, the reconstituted Gotham Club from 1852 until it drifted into inconsequence after the professionals formed their league in 1871. Someone ought to write a book.

The Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855: the first surviving photograph of a baseball team.

The Gotham Base Ball Club of 1855: the earliest surviving photograph of a baseball team.

According to Peverelly, the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York was organized early in 1852, with a mysterious Mr. Tuche as its first president. In his Book of American Pastimes he treated the Washington Base Ball Club as a separate entity, supplying slim details of their two matches with the Knickerbockers on June 3 and 17, 1851. For the first, which the Knicks won by a count of 21–11 in eight innings at the Red House Grounds, all that he had was a line score (both games went unreported in the press). For the second game, which the Knicks won 22–20 in ten innings, he listed the Washington players, several of whom we recognize as New York Base Ball Club players from the 1845 anniversary game and the purported match game of June 19, 1846: William. H. Van Cott, Trenchard, Barnes, William Burns, C[harles] Davis, Robert Winslow, Charles L. Case, Jackson, Thomas Van Cott. Peverelly also lists the officers of the Gotham Club since 1856 and describes the club uniform of ten years after as “a blue merino cap, with a white star in the centre; white flannel shirt, with red cord binding; blue flannel pants, red belt, and white buckskin shoes.”

When the Gothams met the Knicks on July 1, 1853, a game interrupted by rain and resumed on the 5th, their players included (William) Vail, W.H. Van Cott, Thomas Van Cott, (Robert) Winslow, Sr., (Robert) Winslow, Jr., Jonathan ( John) Lalor, Reuben H. Cudlipp, and two highly skilled new players—Joseph C. Pinckney and Louis F. Wadsworth, both of whom would soon leave the club for greener pastures, perhaps lured by emoluments. Another Gotham with a vagabond temperament was second baseman Edward G. Saltzman, who in the spring of 1856 relocated his jewelry trade to Boston. With Brooklynites Augustus P. Margot and Richard Busteed, Saltzman organized the Tri-Mountain Club to play baseball by New York rules.

On November 7, 1857, correspondent “X” wrote of that year’s edition of the club in Porter’s Spirit of the Times:

Their best men are: Messrs. Vail, Van Cott, Cudlipp, [William] Johnson, [John] McCosker, Wadsworth, Sheriden [Phil Sheridan], Turner, and [Charles] Commerford. Mr. Vail, one of the oldest players in this city, and one of the original members, has had great experience; he has filled the position of catcher since Mr. Burns left (the club miss this player very much). He is a strong bat, and plays with good judgment. Mr. Van Cott stands very high as pitcher, combining speed with an even ball. Mr. Wadsworth formerly belonged to the Knickerbocker [which he joined in 1854, coming from the Gotham], and until the last year or so played in all their matches, but left them through some misunderstanding. It is claimed by his friends that he is the best first base man in any club, perfectly fearless—he will stop any ball that may come within reach—is a good player in any position, as his fielding last Friday will show. McCosker and Johnson are both fine catchers, and remarkably strong batsmen; and of the others it may be said, that if not powerful batters, they are what is termed sure ones, and good catchers…. The Gotham formerly played on the grounds of the Red House, and would probably have played there to this day, had there not some difficulty sprung up with the proprietor or lessee. They play at Hoboken, on grounds but slightly inferior to their old locality.[36]

298 Bowery, the Gotham Inn, a.k.a. Gotham Cottage or Gotham Saloon

298 Bowery, the Gotham Inn, a.k.a. Gotham Cottage or Gotham Saloon

The Gothams believed they were direct descendants from not only the Washington Club (which they averred to have organized in 1849, not 1850 as Peverelly had it), but also from the primal New York Club. The club limped along through the 1870s as the professionals took hold of the game. In 1871, following the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional league, the Gothams joined with 32 other clubs, including the venerable Knickerbocker and Eagle clubs, hoping to keep top-level amateur play alive. In a last-gasp member-recruitment circular issued at the opening of the centennial year of 1876, the club’s directors wrote, “The Gotham Base Ball Club dates its existence from the year 1849; it is, therefore, one of the oldest—if not the oldest—organization of its kind in the country.”[37]

A few weeks later, the New York Times reported on the meeting of old Gotham players that resulted. It was noted that this club had “turned out more professional players than any other,” which oddly may have been true. Buried in the notice was the still, to this day, not fully fathomed heritage of the club—like that of the game itself— in the rough and rowdy crowd that populated Washington Market long before.

The meeting on Monday evening was a large and very harmonious one. Old times were talked over, and a unanimous feeling prevailed in favor of reorganizing and keeping up the old club. Mr. James B. Mingay, a gentleman who has done business in Jefferson Market for over thirty years past, was elected president and Mr. Abraham H. Hummel, of the law firm of Howe & Hummel, at No. 89 Centre street, was made Vice President. [Hummel was the notorious underworld lawyer of his day.] The Secretary is Mr. Melchior B. Mason of No. 32 Chambers Street and the treasurer, Mr. Leonard Cohen, of Washington Market. There were about forty of the old members present; and among those who will take an active part in the new organization are Mr. Seaman Lichtenstein, of No. 83 Barclay street, who has been in business over thirty-five years … Mr. John Drohan, Mr. James Forsyth, and Mr. Richard H. Thorn, all merchants of Washington Market, of between twenty and thirty years’ standing.[38]

[Next, a concluding section of biographical profiles of NYBBC / Washington BBC / Gotham BBC players.]

Notes

26. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Club Books 1854–1868, New York Public Library.

27. Spirit of the Times, October 21, 1848, 414.

28. Randall Brown, “How Baseball Began,” The National Pastime 24, 51–54.

29. “The Old Atlantics of Fifty Years Ago,” 1905 clipped article, perhaps from Brooklyn Eagle, otherwise undated. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Chadwick Scrapbooks, vol. 5. Chadwick quotes from a letter he received from Commerford. Also Auburn Citizen, September 22, 1911, reprinted from New York World.

30. Auburn Citizen, September 22, 1911.

31. Albert Spalding Baseball Collections, Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, Game Books 1845–1856, New York Public Library.

32. Tom Melville, The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1998), 168. Melville erroneously cited the game date as October 11.

33. True Sun, October 13, 1845, 2.

34. First names were located in Picton, “Among the Cricketers,” Fun and Fancy in Old New York.

35. “Sporting Intelligence,” New York Herald, November 11, 1845, 2.

36. Porter’s Spirit of the Times, November 7, 1857, 148.

37. New York Herald, January 7, 1876, 8.

38. New York Times, January 23, 1876, 7.

 

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